George de Mohrenschildt made his grand entrance on the afternoon of September fifteenth, a dark and rainy Saturday. He was behind the wheel of a coffee-colored Cadillac right out of a Chuck Berry song. With him was a man I knew, George Bouhe, and one I didn’t — a skinny whip of a guy with a fuzz of white hair and the ramrod back of a fellow who’s spent a good deal of time in the military and is still happy about it. De Mohrenschildt went around to the back of the car and opened the trunk. I dashed to get the distance mike.
When I came back with my gear, Bouhe had a folded-up playpen under his arm, and the military-looking guy had an armload of toys. De Mohrenschildt was empty-handed, and mounted the steps in front of the other two with his head up and his chest thrown out. He was tall and powerfully built. His graying hair was combed slantwise back from his broad forehead in a way that said — to me, at least—look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. For I am GEORGE.
I plugged in the tape recorder, put on the headphones, and tilted the mike-equipped bowl across the street.
Marina was out of sight. Lee was sitting on the couch, reading a thick paperback by the light of the lamp on the bureau. When he heard footsteps on the porch, he looked up with a frown and tossed his book on the coffee table. More goddam expats, he might have been thinking.
But he went to answer the knock. He held out his hand to the silver-haired stranger on his porch, but de Mohrenschildt surprised him — and me — by pulling Lee into his arms and bussing him on both cheeks. Then he held him back by the shoulders. His voice was deep and accented — German rather than Russian, I thought. “Let me look at a young man who has journeyed so far and come back with his ideals intact!” Then he pulled Lee into another hug. Oswald’s head just showed above the bigger man’s shoulder, and I saw something even more surprising: Lee Harvey Oswald was smiling.
Marina came out of the baby’s room with June in her arms. She exclaimed with pleasure when she saw Bouhe, and thanked him for the playpen and what she called, in her stilted English, the “child’s playings.” Bouhe introduced the skinny man as Lawrence Orlov—Colonel Lawrence Orlov, if you please — and de Mohrenschildt as “a friend of the Russian community.”
Bouhe and Orlov went to work setting the playpen up in the middle of the floor. Marina stood with them, chatting in Russian. Like Bouhe, Orlov couldn’t seem to take his eyes off the young Russian mother. Marina was wearing a smock top and shorts showcasing legs that went up forever. Lee’s smile was gone. He was retreating into his usual gloom.
Only de Mohrenschildt wouldn’t let him. He spotted Lee’s paperback, sprang to the coffee table, and picked it up. “Atlas Shrugged ?” Speaking just to Lee. Completely ignoring the others, who were admiring the new playpen. “Ayn Rand? What is a young revolutionary doing with this ?”
“Know your enemy,” Lee said, and when de Mohrenschildt burst into a hearty roar of laughter, Lee’s smile resurfaced.
“And what do you make of Miss Rand’s cri de coeur?” That struck a cord when I played the tape back. I listened to the comment twice before it clicked: it was almost exactly the same phrase Mimi Corcoran had used when asking me about The Catcher in the Rye.
“I think she’s swallowed the poison bait,” Oswald said. “Now she’s making money by selling it to other people.”
“Exactly, my friend. I’ve never heard it put better. There will come a day when the Rands of the world will answer for their crimes. Do you believe that?”
“I know it,” Lee said. He spoke matter-of-factly.
De Mohrenschildt patted the couch. “Sit by me. I want to hear of your adventures in the homeland.”
But first Bouhe and Orlov approached Lee and de Mohrenschildt. There was a lot of back and forth in Russian. Lee looked dubious, but when de Mohrenschildt said something to him, also in Russian, Lee nodded and spoke briefly to Marina. The way he flicked his hand at the door made it pretty clear: Go on, then, go.
De Mohrenschildt tossed his car keys to Bouhe, who fumbled them. De Mohrenschildt and Lee exchanged a look of shared amusement as Bouhe grubbed them off the dirty green carpet. Then they left, Marina carrying the baby in her arms, and drove off in de Mohrenschildt’s boat of a Cadillac.
“Now we have peace, my friend,” de Mohrenschildt said. “And the men will open their wallets, which is good, yes?”
“I get tired of them always opening their wallets,” Lee said. “Rina’s starting to forget that we didn’t come back to America just to buy a damn freezer and a bunch of dresses.”
De Mohrenschildt waved this away. “Sweat from the back of the capitalist hog. Man, isn’t it enough that you live in this depressing place?”
Lee said, “It sure idn’t much, is it?”
De Mohrenschildt clapped him on the back almost hard enough to knock the smaller man off the couch. “Cheer up! What you take now, you give back a thousandfold later. Isn’t that what you believe?” And when Lee nodded: “Now tell me how things stand in Russia, Comrade — may I call you Comrade, or have you repudiated that form of address?”
“You can call me anything but late to dinner,” Oswald said, and laughed. I could see him opening to de Mohrenschildt the way a flower opens to the sun after days of rain.
Lee talked about Russia. He was long-winded and pompous. I wasn’t very interested in his rap about how the Communist bureaucracy had hijacked all the country’s wonderful prewar socialist ideals (he passed over Stalin’s Great Purge in the thirties). Nor was I interested in his judgment that Nikita Khrushchev was an idiot; you could hear the same idle bullshit about American leaders in any barbershop or shoeshine parlor right here. Oswald might be going to change the course of history in a mere fourteen months, but he was a bore.
What interested me was the way de Mohrenschildt listened. He did it as the world’s more charming and magnetic people do, always asking the right question at the right time, never fidgeting or taking his eyes from the speaker’s face, making the other guy feel like the most knowledgeable, brilliant, and intellectually savvy person on the planet. This might have been the first time in his life that Lee had been listened to in such a way.
“There’s only one hope for socialism that I see,” Lee finished, “and that’s Cuba. There the revolution is still pure. I hope to go there one day. I may become a citizen.”
De Mohrenschildt nodded gravely. “You could do far worse. I have been, many times, before the current administration made it difficult to travel there. It is a beautiful country. . and now, thanks to Fidel, it’s a beautiful country that belongs to the people who live there.”
“I know it.” Lee’s face was shining.
“But!” De Mohrenschildt raised a lecturely finger. “If you believe the American capitalists will let Fidel, Raul, and Che work their magic without interference, you’re living in a dream-world. Already the wheels are turning. You know this fellow Walker?”
My ears pricked up.
“Edwin Walker? The general who got fired?” Lee said it fard.
“The very one.”
“I know him. Lives in Dallas. Ran for governor and got his ass kicked. Then he goes over to Miss’sippi to stand with Ross Barnett when James Meredith integrated Ole Miss. He’s just another segregationist little Hitler.”
“A racist, certainly, but for him the segregationist cause and the Klan bobos are just a blind. He sees the push for Negro rights as a club to beat at the socialist principles that so haunt him and his ilk. James Meredith? A communist! The N-double-A-C-P? A front! SNCC? Black on top, red inside!”
“Sure,” Lee said, “it’s how they work.”
I couldn’t tell if de Mohrenschildt was actually invested in the things he was saying or if he was just winding Lee up for the hell of it. “And what do the Walkers and the Barnetts and the capering revivalist preachers like Billy Graham and Billy James Hargis see as the beating heart of this evil nigger-loving communist monster? Russia!”
“I know it.”
“And where do they see the grasping hand of communism just ninety miles from the shores of the United States? Cuba! Walker no longer wears the uniform, but his best friend does. Do you know who I’m talking about?”
Lee shook his head. His eyes never left de Mohrenschildt’s face.
“Curtis LeMay. Another racist who sees communists behind every bush. What do Walker and LeMay insist that Kennedy do? Bomb Cuba! Then invade Cuba! Then make Cuba the fifty-first state! Their humiliation at the Bay of Pigs has only made them more determined!” De Mohrenschildt made his own exclamation marks by pounding his fist on his thigh. “Men like LeMay and Walker are far more dangerous than the Rand bitch, and not because they have guns. Because they have followers. ”
“I know the danger,” Lee said. “I’ve started organizing a Hands Off Cuba group here in Fort Worth. I’ve got a dozen people interested already.”
That was bold. To the best of my knowledge, the only thing Lee had been organizing in Fort Worth was a passel of aluminum screen doors, plus the backyard clothes-whirligig on the few occasions when Marina could persuade him to hang the baby’s diapers on it.
“You’d better work fast,” de Mohrenschildt said grimly. “Cuba’s a billboard for revolution. When the suffering people of Nicaragua and Haiti and the Dominican Republic look at Cuba, they see a peaceful agrarian socialist society where the dictator has been overturned and the secret police have been sent packing, sometimes with their truncheons stuck up their fat asses!”
Lee squalled laughter.
“They see the great sugar plantations and the slave-labor farms of United Fruit turned over to the farmers. They see Standard Oil sent packing. They see the casinos, all run by the Lansky Mob—”
“I know it,” Lee said.
“—shut down. The donkey-shows have stopped, my friend, and the women who used to sell their bodies. . and their daughters’ bodies — have found honest work again. A peon who would have died in the streets under the pig Batista can now go to a hospital and be treated like a man. And why? Because under Fidel, the doctor and the peon stand as equals!”
“I know it,” Lee said. It was his default position.
De Mohrenschildt leaped from the couch and began to pace around the new playpen. “Do you think Kennedy and his Irish cabal will let that billboard stand? That lighthouse, flashing its message of hope?”
“I sort of like Kennedy,” Lee said, as if embarrassed to admit it. “In spite of the Bay of Pigs. That was Eisenhower’s plan, you know.”
“Most of the GSA likes President Kennedy. Do you know what I mean by the GSA? I can assure you that the rabid she-weasel who wrote Atlas Shrugged knows. Great Stupid America, that’s what I mean. The citizens of the USA will live happy and die content if they have a refrigerator that makes ice, two cars in their garage, and 77 Sunset Strip on their boob tubes. Great Stupid America loves Kennedy’s smile. Oh yes. Yes indeed. He has a wonderful smile, I admit it. But did not Shakespeare say a man can smile, and smile, and be a villain? Do you know that Kennedy has okayed a CIA plan to assassinate Castro? Yes! They’ve already tried — and failed, thank God — three or four times. I have this from my oil contacts in Haiti and the DR, Lee, and it’s good information.”
Lee expressed dismay.
“But Fidel has a strong friend in Russia,” de Mohrenschildt went on, still pacing. “It isn’t the Russia of Lenin’s dreams — or yours, or mine — but they may have their own reasons for standing with Fidel if America tries another invasion. And mark my words: Kennedy is apt to try it, and soon. He’ll listen to LeMay. He’ll listen to Dulles and Angleton of the CIA. All he needs is the right pretext and then he’ll go in, just to show the world he’s got balls.”
They went on talking about Cuba. When the Cadillac returned, the rear seat was full of groceries — enough for a month, it looked like.
“Shit,” Lee said. “They’re back.”
“And we are glad to see them,” de Mohrenschildt said pleasantly.
“Stay for dinner,” Lee said. “Rina’s not much of a cook, but—”
“I must go. My wife is waiting anxiously for my report, and I’ll give her a good one! I’ll bring her next time, shall I?”
They went to the door. Marina was talking with Bouhe and Orlov as the two men lifted cartons of canned goods from the trunk. But she wasn’t just talking; she was flirting a little, too. Bouhe looked ready to fall on his knees.
On the porch, Lee said something about the FBI. De Mohrenschildt asked him how many times. Lee held up three fingers. “One agent called Fain. He came twice. Another named Hosty.”
“Look them right in the eye and answer their questions!” de Mohrenschildt said. “You have nothing to fear, Lee, not just because you are innocent, but because you are in the right!”
The others were looking at him now. . and not just them. The jump-rope girls had appeared, standing in the rut that served as a sidewalk on our block of Mercedes Street. De Mohrenschildt had an audience, and was declaiming to it.
“You are ideologically dedicated, young Mr. Oswald, so of course they come. The Hoover Gang! For all we know, they’re watching now, perhaps from down the block, perhaps from that house right across the street!”
De Mohrenschildt stabbed his finger at my drawn drapes. Lee turned to look. I stood still in the shadows, glad I’d put down the sound-enhancing Tupperware bowl, even though it was now coated with black tape.
“I know who they are. Haven’t they and their CIA first cousins been to visit me on many occasions, trying to browbeat me into informing on my Russian and South American friends? After the war, didn’t they call me a closet Nazi? Haven’t they claimed I hired the tonton macoute to beat and torture my competitors for oil leases in Haiti? Didn’t they accuse me of bribing Papa Doc and paying for the Trujillo assassination? Yes, yes, all of that and more!”
The jump-rope girls were staring at him with their mouths open. So was Marina. Once he got going, George de Mohrenschildt swept everything before him.
“Be courageous, Lee! When they come, stand forward! Show them this!” He grasped his shirt and tore it open. Buttons popped off and clattered to the porch. The jump-rope girls gasped, too shocked to giggle. Unlike most American men of that time, de Mohrenschildt wore no undershirt. His skin was the color of oiled mahogany. Fatty breasts hung on old muscle. He pounded his right fist above his left nipple. “Tell them ‘Here is my heart, and my heart is pure, and my heart belongs to my cause!’ Tell them ‘Even if Hoover rips my heart out of me, it will still beat, and a thousand other hearts will beat in time! Then ten thousand! Then a hundred thousand! Then a million!’”
Orlov put down the box of canned goods he was holding so he could offer a round of light satiric applause. Marina’s cheeks were flaming with color. Lee’s face was the most interesting one. Like Paul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road, he’d had a revelation.
The blindness had dropped from his eyes.
De Mohrenschildt’s preaching and shirt-ripping antics — not so very different from the tent-show shenanigans of the right-wing evangelists he reviled — were deeply troubling to me. I had hoped that if I could listen in on a heart-to-heart between the two men, it might go a long way toward eliminating de Mohrenschildt as a real factor in the Walker attempt, and hence the Kennedy assassination. I’d gotten the heart-to-heart, but it made things worse instead of better.
One thing seemed clear: it was time to bid Mercedes Street a not-so-fond adieu. I had rented the ground-floor apartment at 214 West Neely. On the twenty-fourth of September, I packed up my aging Ford Sunliner with my few clothes, my books, and my typewriter, and moved them to Dallas.
The two fat ladies had left behind a sickroom-stenchy pigsty. I did the cleanup myself, thanking God that Al’s rabbit-hole emerged in a time when aerosol air-freshener was available. I bought a portable TV at a yard sale and plunked it down on the kitchen counter next to the stove (which I thought of as the Repository of Antique Grease). As I swept, washed, scrubbed, and sprayed, I watched crime shows like The Untouchables and sitcoms like Car 54, Where Are You? When the thumps and shouts of the kids upstairs quit for the night, I turned in and slept like the dead. There were no dreams.
I held onto my place on Mercedes Street, but didn’t see much at 2703. Sometimes Marina popped June into a stroller (another gift from her elderly admirer, Mr. Bouhe) and rolled her up to the warehouse parking lot and back again. In the afternoons, after school let out, the jump-rope girls often accompanied them. Marina even jumped herself a couple of times, chanting in Russian. The sight of her mother pogoing up and down with that great cloud of dark hair flying made the baby laugh. The jump-rope girls laughed, too. Marina didn’t mind. She talked a lot with them, and never looked irritated when they giggled and corrected her. She looked pleased, in fact. Lee didn’t want her to learn English, but she was learning it anyway. Good for her.
On October 2, 1962, I woke to eerie silence in my Neely Street apartment: no running feet overhead, no young mother yelling at the older two to get ready for school. They had moved out in the middle of the night.
I went upstairs and tried my key on their door. It didn’t work, but the lock was of the spring variety and I popped it easily with a coathanger. I spied an empty bookcase in the living room. I drilled a small hole in the floor, plugged in the second bugged lamp, and fed the tapwire through the hole and into my downstairs apartment. Then I moved the bookcase over it.
The bug worked fine, but the reels of the cunning little Japanese tape recorder only turned when prospective tenants came to look at the apartment and happened to try the lamp. There were lookers, but no takers. Until the Oswalds moved in, I had the Neely Street address entirely to myself. After the bumptious carnival that was Mercedes Street, that was a relief, although I kind of missed the jump-rope girls. They were my Greek chorus.
I slept in my Dallas apartment at night and watched Marina stroll the baby in Fort Worth by day. While I was so occupied, another sixties watershed moment was approaching, but I ignored it. I was preoccupied with the Oswalds, who were undergoing another domestic spasm.
Lee came home early from work one day during the second week of October. Marina was out walking June. They spoke at the foot of the driveway across the street. Near the end of the conversation, Marina spoke in English. “Vut is lay-doff mean?”
He explained in Russian. Marina spread her hands in a what-can-you-do gesture, and hugged him. Lee kissed her cheek, then took the baby out of the stroller. June laughed as he held her high over his head, her hands reaching down to tug at his hair. They went inside together. Happy little family, bearing up under temporary adversity.
That lasted until five in the afternoon. I was getting ready to drive back to Neely Street when I spied Marguerite Oswald approaching from the bus stop on Winscott Road.
Here comes trouble, I thought, and how right I was.
Once again Marguerite avoided the still unrepaired ha-ha step; once more she entered without knocking; fireworks followed immediately. It was a warm evening and the windows were open over there. I didn’t bother with the distance mike. Lee and his mother argued at full volume.
He hadn’t been laid off from his job at Leslie Welding after all, it seemed; he had just walked away. The boss called Vada Oswald, looking for him because they were shorthanded, and when he got no help from Robert’s wife, he called Marguerite.
“I lied for you, Lee!” Marguerite shouted. “I said you had the flu! Why do you always make me lie for you?”
“I don’t make you do nothing!” he shouted back. They were standing nose-to-nose in the living room. “I don’t make you do nothing, and you do it anyway!”
“Lee, how are you going to support your family? You need a job!”
“Oh, I’ll get a job! Don’t you worry about that, Ma!”
“I don’t know—”
“Oh, Lee ! How’ll you pay the rent?”
“—but she’s got plenty of friends.” He jerked a thumb at Marina, who flinched. “They aren’t good for much, but they’ll be good for that. You need to get out of here, Ma. Go back home. Let me catch my breath.”
Marguerite darted to the playpen. “Where’d this here come from?”
“The friends I told you about. Half of em’s rich and the rest are trying. They like to talk to Rina.” Lee sneered. “The older ones like to ogle her tits.”
“Lee!” Shocked voice, but a look on her face that was. . pleased? Was Mamochka pleased at the fury she heard in her son’s voice?
“Go on, Ma. Give us some peace.”
“Does she understand that men who give things always want things in return? Does she, Lee?”
“Get the hell out!” Shaking his fists. Almost dancing in his impotent rage.
Marguerite smiled. “You’re upset. Of course you are. I’ll come back when you’re feeling more in control of yourself. And I’ll help. I always want to help.”
Then, abruptly, she rushed at Marina and the baby. It was as if she meant to attack them. She covered June’s face with kisses, then strode across the room. At the door, she turned and pointed at the playpen. “Tell her to scrub that down, Lee. People’s cast-offs always have germs. If the baby gets sick, you’ll never be able to afford the doctor.”
“Ma! Go! ”
“I am just now.” Calm as cookies and milk. She twiddled her fingers in a girlish ta-ta gesture, and off she went.
Marina approached Lee, holding the baby like a shield. They talked. Then they shouted. Family solidarity was gone with the wind; Marguerite had seen to that. Lee took the baby, rocked her in the crook of one arm, then — with absolutely no warning — punched his wife in the face. Marina went down, bleeding from the mouth and nose and crying loudly. Lee looked at her. The baby was also crying. Lee stroked June’s fine hair, kissed her cheek, rocked her some more. Marina came back into view, struggling to her feet. Lee kicked her in the side and down she went again. I could see nothing but the cloud of her hair.
Leave him, I thought, even though I knew she wouldn’t. Take the baby and leave him. Go to George Bouhe. Warm his bed if you have to, but get away from that skinny, mother-ridden monster posthaste.
But it was Lee who left her, at least temporarily. I never saw him on Mercedes Street again.
It was their first separation. Lee went to Dallas to look for work. I don’t know where he stayed. According to Al’s notes it was the Y, but that turned out to be wrong. Maybe he found a place in one of the cheap rooming houses downtown. I wasn’t concerned. I knew they’d show up together to rent the apartment above me, and for the time being, I’d had enough of him. It was a treat not to have to listen to his slowed-down voice saying I know it a dozen times in every conversation.
Thanks to George Bouhe, Marina landed on her feet. Not long after Marguerite’s visit and Lee’s decampment, Bouhe and another man arrived in a Chevy truck and moved her out. When the pickup left 2703 Mercedes, mother and daughter were riding in the bed. The pink suitcase Marina had brought from Russia had been lined with blankets, and June lay fast asleep in this makeshift nest. Marina put a steadying hand on the little girl’s chest as the truck started rolling. The jump-rope girls were watching, and Marina waved to them. They waved back.
I found George de Mohrenschildt’s address in the Dallas White Pages and followed him several times. I was curious about whom he might meet, although if it were a CIA man, a minion of the Lansky Mob, or some other possible conspirator, I doubt I would have known it. All I can say is that he met no one that seemed suspicious to me. He went to work; he went to the Dallas Country Club, where he played tennis or swam with his wife; they went out to a couple of strip clubs. He didn’t bother the dancers, but had a penchant for fondling his wife’s boobs and butt in public. She didn’t seem to mind.
On two occasions he met with Lee. Once it was at de Mohrenschildt’s favorite strip club. Lee seemed uncomfortable with the milieu, and they didn’t stay long. The second time they had lunch in a Browder Street coffee shop. There they remained until almost two in the afternoon, talking over endless cups of coffee. Lee started to get up, reconsidered, and ordered something else. The waitress brought him a piece of pie, and he handed her something, which she put in her apron pocket after a cursory glance. Instead of following when they left, I approached the waitress and asked if I could see what the young man had given her.
“You c’n have it,” she said, and gave me a sheet of yellow paper with black tabloid letters at the top: HANDS OFF CUBA! It urged “interested persons” to join the Dallas — Fort Worth branch of this fine organization. DON’T LET UNCLE SAM DUPE YOU! WRITE TO PO BOX 1919 FOR DETAILS OF FUTURE MEETINGS.
“What did they talk about?” I asked.
“Are you a cop?”
“No, I tip better than the cops,” I said, and handed her a five-dollar bill.
“That stuff,” she said, and pointed at the flyer, which Oswald had undoubtedly printed off at his new place of employment. “Cuba. Like I give a shit.”
But on the night of October twenty-second, less than a week later, President Kennedy was also talking about Cuba. And then everybody gave a shit.
It’s a blues truism that you never miss your water until the well runs dry, but until the fall of 1962, I didn’t realize that also applied to the patter of little feet shaking your ceiling. With the family from upstairs gone, 214 West Neely took on a creepy haunted-house vibe. I missed Sadie, and began to worry about her almost obsessively. On second thought, you can strike the almost. Ellie Dockerty and Deke Simmons didn’t take my concern about her husband seriously. Sadie herself didn’t take it seriously; for all I knew, she thought I was trying to scare her about John Clayton in order to keep her from pushing me entirely out of her life. None of them knew that, if you removed the Sadie part, her name was only a syllable away from Doris Dunning. None of them knew about the harmonic effect, which I seemed to be creating myself, just by my presence in the Land of Ago. That being the case, who would be to blame if something happened to Sadie?
The bad dreams started to come back. The Jimla dreams.
I quit keeping tabs on George de Mohrenschildt and started taking long walks that began in the afternoon and didn’t finish up back at West Neely Street until nine or even ten o’clock at night. I spent them thinking about Lee, now working as a photoprint trainee at a Dallas graphic arts company called Jaggars-Chiles-Stovall. Or about Marina, who had taken up temporary residence with a newly divorced woman named Elena Hall. The Hall woman worked for George Bouhe’s dentist, and it was the dentist who had been behind the wheel of the pickup on the day Marina and June moved out of the dump on Mercedes Street.
Mostly what I thought about was Sadie. And Sadie. And Sadie.
On one of those strolls, feeling thirsty as well as depressed, I stopped into a neighborhood watering hole called the Ivy Room and ordered a beer. The jukebox was off and the patrons were unusually silent. When the waitress put my beer in front of me and immediately turned to face the TV over the bar, I realized that everyone was watching the man I had come to save. He was pale and grave. There were dark circles under his eyes.
“To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine of all offensive equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, will be turned back.”
“Christ Jesus!” said a man in a cowboy hat. “What does he think the Russkies are goan do about that ?”
“Shut up, Bill,” the bartender said. “We need to hear this.”
“It shall be the policy of this nation,” Kennedy went on, “to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”
A woman at the end of the bar moaned and clutched her stomach. The man beside her put an arm around her, and she put her head on his shoulder.
What I saw on Kennedy’s face was fright and determination in equal measure. What I also saw was life —a total engagement with the job at hand. He was exactly thirteen months from his date with the assassin’s bullet.
“As a necessary military precaution, I have reinforced our base at Guantánamo and evacuated today the dependents of our personnel there.”
“Drinks for the house on me,” Bill the Cowboy suddenly proclaimed. “Because this looks like the end of the road, amigos. ” He put two twenties beside his shot glass, but the bartender made no move to pick them up. He was watching Kennedy, who was now calling on Chairman Khrushchev to eliminate “this clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace.”
The waitress who had served my beer, a rode-hard-and-put-away-wet peroxide blonde of fifty or so, suddenly burst into tears. That decided me. I got off my stool, wove my way around the tables where men and women sat looking at the television like solemn children, and slipped into one of the phone booths next to the Skee-Ball machine.
The operator told me to deposit forty cents for the first three minutes. I dropped in two quarters. The pay phone bonged mellowly. Faintly, I could still hear Kennedy talking in that nasal New England voice. Now he was accusing Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko of being a liar. No waffling there.
“Connecting you now, sir,” the operator said. Then she blurted: “Are you listening to the president? If you’re not, you should turn on your TV or radio.”
“I’m listening,” I said. Sadie would be, too. Sadie, whose husband had spouted a lot of apocalyptic bullshit thinly coated with science. Sadie, whose Yalie politico friend had told her something big was going to pop in the Caribbean. A flashpoint, probably Cuba.
I had no idea what I was going to say to soothe her, but that wasn’t a problem. The phone rang and rang. I didn’t like it. Where was she at eight-thirty on a Monday night in Jodie? At the movies? I didn’t believe it.
“Sir, your party does not answer.”
“I know it,” I said, and grimaced when I heard Lee’s pet phrase coming out of my mouth.
My quarters clattered into the coin return when I hung up. I started to put them back in, then reconsidered. What good would it do to call Miz Ellie? I was in Miz Ellie’s bad books now. Deke’s too, probably. They’d tell me to go peddle my papers.
When I walked back to the bar, Walter Cronkite was showing U-2 photos of the Soviet missile bases that were under construction. He said that many members of Congress were urging Kennedy to initiate bombing missions or launch a full-scale invasion immediately. American missile bases and the Strategic Air Command had gone to DEFCON-4 for the first time in history.
“American B-52 bombers will soon be circling just outside the Soviet Union’s borders,” Cronkite was saying in that deep, portentous voice of his. “And — this is obvious to all of us who’ve covered the last seven years of this ever more frightening cold war — the chances for a mistake, a potentially disastrous mistake, grow with each new escalation of—”
“Don’t wait!” a man standing by the pool table shouted. “Bomb the living shit out of those commie cocksuckers right now!”
There were a few cries of protest at this bloodthirsty sentiment, but they were mostly drowned in a wave of applause. I left the Ivy Room and jogged back to Neely Street. When I got there, I jumped into my Sunliner and rolled wheels for Jodie.
My car radio, now working again, broadcast nothing but a heaping dish of doom as I chased my headlights down Highway 77. Even the DJs had caught Nuclear Flu, saying things like “God bless America” and “Keep your powder dry.” When the K-Life jock played Johnny Horton caterwauling “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” I snapped it off. It was too much like the day after 9/11.
I kept the pedal to the metal in spite of the Sunliner’s increasingly distressed engine and the way the needle on the ENGINE TEMP dial kept creeping toward H . The roads were all but deserted, and I turned into Sadie’s driveway at just a little past twelve-thirty on the morning of the twenty-third. Her yellow VW Beetle was parked in front of the closed garage doors, and the lights were on downstairs, but there was no answer when I rang the doorbell. I went around back and hammered on the kitchen door, also to no effect. I liked it less and less.
She kept a spare key under the back step. I fished it out and let myself in. The unmistakable aroma of whiskey hit my nose, and the stale smell of cigarettes.
Nothing. I crossed the kitchen to the living room. There was an overflowing ashtray on the low table in front of the couch, and liquid soaking into the Life and Look magazines spread out there. I put my fingers into it, then raised them to my nose. Scotch. Fuck.
Now I could smell something else that I remembered well from Christy’s binges: the sharp aroma of vomit.
I ran down the short hall on the other side of the living room. There were two doors facing each other, one giving on her bedroom and the other leading to an office-study. The doors were shut, but the bathroom door at the end of the hall was open. The harsh fluorescent light showed vomit splattered on the ring of the toilet bowl. There was more on the pink tile floor and the rim of the bathtub. There was a bottle of pills standing beside the soapdish on the sink. The cap was off. I ran to the bedroom.
She was lying crosswise on the mussed coverlet, wearing a slip and one suede moccasin. The other had dropped off onto the floor. Her skin was the color of old candle wax, and she did not appear to be breathing. Then she took a huge snoring gasp and wheezed it back out. Her chest remained flat for a terrifying four seconds, then she jerked in another rattle of breath. There was another overflowing ashtray on the night table. A crumpled Winston pack, charred at one end by an imperfectly stubbed-out cigarette, lay on top of the dead soldiers. Beside the ashtray were a half-empty glass and a bottle of Glenlivet. Not much of the Scotch was gone — thank God for small favors — but it wasn’t really the Scotch I was worried about. It was the pills. There was also a brown manila envelope on the table with what looked like photographs spilling out of it, but I didn’t glance at them. Not then.
I got my arms around her and tried to pull her into a sitting position. The slip was silk and slithered through my hands. She thumped back onto the bed and took another of those rasping, labored breaths. Her hair flopped across one closed eye.
“Sadie, wake up!”
Nothing. I grabbed her by the shoulders, and hauled her against the head of the bed. It thumped and shivered.
“Lea me lone.” Slurry and weak, but better than nothing.
“Wake up, Sadie! You have to wake up!”
I began to slap lightly at her cheeks. Her eyes remained shut, but her hands came up and tried — weakly — to fend me off.
“Wake up! Wake up, dammit!”
Her eyes opened, looked at me without recognition, then shut again. But she was breathing more normally. Now that she was sitting, that terrifying rasp was gone.
I went back to the bathroom, dumped her toothbrush out of the pink plastic glass, and turned on the cold tap. While I filled the glass, I looked at the label on the pill bottle. Nembutal. There were ten or a dozen capsules left, so it hadn’t been a suicide attempt. At least not an overt one. I spilled them into the toilet, then ran back to the bedroom. She was sliding down from the sitting position I’d left her in, and with her head cocked forward and her chin down against her breastbone, her respiration had turned raspy again.
I put the glass of water on the nightstand, and froze for a second as I got a look at one of the photographs sticking out of the envelope. It could have been a woman — what remained of the hair was long — but it was hard to tell for sure. Where the face should have been, there was only raw meat with a hole near the bottom. The hole appeared to be screaming.
I hauled Sadie up, grabbed a handful of her hair, and pulled her head back. She moaned something that might have been Don’t, that hurts. Then I threw the glass of water in her face. She jerked and her eyes flew open.
“Jor? Wha you doon here, Jor? Why-my wet?”
“Wake up. Wake up, Sadie.” I began to slap her face again, but more gently now, almost patting. It wasn’t good enough. Her eyes started to slip closed.
“Go. . way !”
“Not unless you want me to call an ambulance. That way you can see your name in the paper. The schoolboard would love that. Upsa-daisy.”
I managed to get my hands linked behind her and pulled her off the bed. Her slip rucked up, then fell back into place as she crumpled to her knees on the carpet. Her eyes flew open and she cried out in pain, but I got her on her feet. She swayed back and forth, slapping at my face with more strength.
“Get ow! Get ow, Jor!”
“No, ma’am.” I put my arm around her waist and got her moving toward the door, half-leading and half-carrying her. We made the turn toward the bathroom, and then her knees came unhinged. I carried her, which was no mean feat, given her height and size. Thank God for adrenaline. I batted down the toilet ring and got her seated just before my own knees gave out. I was gasping for breath, partly from effort, mostly from fright. She started to tilt toward starboard, and I slapped her bare arm—smack.
“Sit up!” I shouted into her face. “Sit up, Christy, goddammit!”
Her eyes fought open. They were badly bloodshot. “Who Christy?”
“Lead singer with the Rolling Fucking Stones,” I said. “How long have you been taking Nembutal? And how many did you take tonight?”
“Got a scrishun,” she said. “None your bi’ness, Jor.”
“How many? How much did you drink?”
I spun the tub’s cold tap all the way, then pulled the pin that turned on the shower. She saw what I meant to do, and once again began to slap.
“No, Jor! No!”
I ignored her. This wasn’t the first time that I’d put a partially dressed woman into a cold shower, and some things are like riding a bike. I lifted her over the rim of the tub in a quick clean-and-jerk I’d feel in the small of my back the next day, then held on tight as the cold water smacked her and she began to flail. She reached out to grab the towel bar, yelling. Her eyes were open now. Beads of water stood in her hair. The slip turned transparent, and even under such circumstances it was impossible not to feel a moment of lust as those curves came into full view.
She tried to get out. I pushed her back.
“Stand there, Sadie. Stand there and take it.”
“H-How long? It’s cold !”
“Until I see some color come back into your cheeks.”
“W-Why are you d-d-doing this?” Her teeth were chattering.
“Because you almost killed yourself!” I shouted.
She flinched. Her feet slipped, but she grabbed the towel bar and stayed upright. Reflexes returning. Good.
“The p-p-pills weren’t working, so I had a d-drink, that’s all. Let me get out, I’m so cold. Please G-George, please let me get out.” Her hair was clinging to her cheeks now, she looked like a drowned rat, but she was getting some color in her face. Nothing but a thin flush, but it was a start.
I turned off the shower, got my arms around her in a hug, and held her as she tottered over the lip of the tub. Water from her soaked slip pattered onto the pink bathmat. I whispered into her ear: “I thought you were dead. When I came in and saw you lying there, I thought you were fucking dead. You’ll never know how that felt.”
I let her go. She stared at me with wide, wondering eyes. Then she said: “John was right. R-Roger, too. He called me tonight before Kennedy’s speech. From Washington. So what does it matter? By this time next week, we’ll all be dead. Or wish we were.”
At first I had no idea what she was talking about. I saw Christy standing there, dripping and bedraggled and full of bullshit, and I was utterly furious. You cowardly bitch, I thought. She must have seen it in my eyes, because she drew back.
That cleared my head. Could I call her cowardly just because I happened to know what the landscape looked like over the horizon?
I took a bath towel from the rack over the toilet and handed it to her. “Strip off, then dry off,” I said.
“Go out, then. Give me some privacy.”
“I will if you tell me you’re awake.”
“I’m awake.” She looked at me with churlish resentment and — maybe — the tiniest glint of humor. “You certainly know how to make an entrance, George.”
I turned to the medicine cabinet.
“There aren’t any more,” she said. “What isn’t in me is in the commode.”
Having been married to Christy for four years, I looked anyway. Then I flushed the toilet. With that business taken care of, I slipped past her to the bathroom door. “I’ll give you three minutes,” I said.
The return address on the manila envelope was John Clayton, 79 East Oglethorpe Avenue, Savannah, Georgia. You certainly couldn’t accuse the bastard of flying under false colors, or going the anonymous route. The postmark was August twenty-eighth, so it had probably been waiting here for her when she got back from Reno. She’d had nearly two months to brood over the contents. Had she sounded sad and depressed when I’d talked to her on the night of September sixth? Well, no wonder, given the photographs her ex had so thoughtfully sent her.
We’re all in danger, she’d said the last time I spoke to her on the phone. Johnny’s right about that.
The pictures were of Japanese men, women, and children. Victims of the atomic bomb-blasts at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or both. Some were blind. Many were bald. Most were suffering from radiation burns. A few, like the faceless woman, had been charbroiled. One picture showed a quartet of black statues in cringing postures. Four people had been standing in front of a wall when the bomb went off. The people had been vaporized, and most of the wall had been vaporized, too. The only parts that remained were the parts that had been shielded by those standing in front of it. The shapes were black because they were coated in charred flesh.
On the back of each picture, he had written the same message in his clear, neat hand: Coming soon to America. Statistical analysis does not lie.
“Nice, aren’t they?”
Her voice was flat and lifeless. She was standing in the doorway, bundled into the towel. Her hair fell to her bare shoulders in damp ringlets.
“How much did you have to drink, Sadie?”
“Only a couple of shots when the pills wouldn’t work. I think I tried to tell you that when you were shaking and slapping me.”
“If you expect me to apologize, you’ll wait a long time. Barbiturates and booze are a bad combination.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’ve been slapped before.”
That made me think of Marina, and I winced. It wasn’t the same, but slapping is slapping. And I had been angry as well as scared.
She went to the chair in the corner, sat down, and pulled the towel tighter around her. She looked like a sulky child. “My friend Roger Beaton called. Did I tell you that?”
“My good friend Roger.” Her eyes dared me to make something of it. I didn’t. Ultimately, it was her life. I just wanted to make sure she had a life.
“All right, your good friend Roger.”
“He told me to be sure and watch the Irish asshole’s speech tonight. That’s what he called him. Then he asked me how far Jodie was from Dallas. When I told him he said, ‘That should be far enough, depending on which way the wind’s blowing.’ He’s getting out of Washington himself, lots of people are, but I don’t think it will do them any good. You can’t outrun a nuclear war.” She began to cry then, harsh and wrenching sobs that shook her whole body. “Those idiots are going to destroy a beautiful world! They’re going to kill children! I hate them! I hate them all! Kennedy, Khrushchev, Castro, I hope they all rot in hell!”
She covered her face with her hands. I knelt like some old-fashioned gentleman preparing to propose and embraced her. She put her arms around my neck and clung to me in what was almost a drowner’s grip. Her body was still cold from the shower, but the cheek she laid against my arm was feverish.
In that moment I hated them all, too, John Clayton most of all for planting this seed in a young woman who was insecure and psychologically vulnerable. He had planted it, watered it, weeded it, and watched it grow.
And was Sadie the only one in terror tonight, the only one who had turned to the pills and the booze? How hard and fast were they drinking in the Ivy Room right now? I’d made the stupid assumption that people were going to approach the Cuban Missile Crisis much like any other temporary international dust-up, because by the time I went to college, it was just another intersection of names and dates to memorize for the next prelim. That’s how things look from the future. To people in the valley (the dark valley) of the present, they look different.
“The pictures were here when I got back from Reno.” She looked at me with her bloodshot, haunted eyes. “I wanted to throw them away, but I couldn’t. I kept looking at them.”
“It’s what the bastard wanted. That’s why he sent them.”
She didn’t seem to hear. “Statistical analysis is his hobby. He says that someday, when the computers are good enough, it will be the most important science, because statistical analysis is never wrong.”
“Not true.” In my mind’s eye I saw George de Mohrenschildt, the charmer who was Lee’s only friend. “There’s always a window of uncertainty.”
“I guess the day of Johnny’s super-computers will never come,” she said. “The people left — if there are any — will be living in caves. And the sky. . no more blue. Nuclear darkness, that’s what Johnny calls it.”
“He’s full of shit, Sadie. Your pal Roger, too.”
She shook her head. Her bloodshot eyes regarded me sadly. “Johnny knew the Russians were going to launch a space satellite. We were just out of college then. He told me in the summer, and sure enough, they put Sputnik up in October. ‘Next they’ll send a dog or a monkey,’ Johnny said. ‘After that they’ll send a man. Then they’ll send two men and a bomb.’”
“And did they do that? Did they, Sadie?”
“They sent the dog, and they sent the man. The dog’s name was Laika, remember? It died up there. Poor doggy. They won’t have to send up the two men and the bomb, will they? They’ll use their missiles. And we’ll use ours. All over a shitpot island where they make cigars. ”
“Do you know what the magicians say?”
“The—? What are you talking about?”
“They say you can fool a scientist, but you can never fool another magician. Your ex may teach science, but he’s sure no magician. The Russians, on the other hand, are.”
“You’re not making sense. Johnny says the Russians have to fight, and soon, because now they have missile superiority, but they won’t for long. That’s why they won’t back down in Cuba. It’s a pretext.”
“Johnny’s seen too much newsreel footage of missiles being trundled through Red Square on Mayday. What he doesn’t know — and what Senator Kuchel doesn’t know, either, probably — is that over half of those missiles don’t have engines in them.”
“You don’t. . you can’t. .”
“He doesn’t know how many of their ICBMs blow up on their launch pads in Siberia because their rocketry guys are incompetent. He doesn’t know that over half the missiles our U-2 planes have photographed are actually painted trees with cardboard fins. It’s sleight of hand, Sadie. It fools scientists like Johnny and politicians like Senator Kuchel, but it would never fool another magician.”
“That’s. . it’s not. .” She fell silent for a moment, biting at her lips. Then she said, “How could you know stuff like that?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Then I can’t believe you. Johnny said Kennedy was going to be the nominee of the Democratic party, even though everybody else thought it was going to be Humphrey on account of Kennedy being a Catholic. He analyzed the states with primaries, ran the numbers, and he was right. He said Johnson would be Kennedy’s running mate because Johnson was the only Southerner who would be acceptable north of the Mason-Dixon line. He was right about that, too. Kennedy got in, and now he’s going to kill us all. Statistical analysis doesn’t lie.”
I took a deep breath. “Sadie, I want you to listen to me. Very carefully. Are you awake enough to do that?”
For a moment there was nothing. Then I felt her nod against my upper arm.
“It’s now early Tuesday morning. This standoff is going to go on for another three days. Or maybe it’s four, I can’t remember.”
“What do you mean, you can’t remember ?”
I mean there’s nothing about this in Al’s notes, and my only college class in American History was almost twenty years ago. It’s amazing I can remember as much as I do.
“We’re going to blockade Cuba, but the only Russian ship we’ll stop won’t have anything in it but food and trade goods. The Russians are going to bluster, but by Thursday or Friday they’re going to be scared to death and looking for a way out. One of the big Russian diplomats will initiate a backchannel meeting with some TV guy.” And seemingly from nowhere, the way crossword puzzle answers sometimes come to me, I remembered the name. Or almost remembered it. “His name is John Scolari, or something like that—”
“Scali? Are you talking about John Scali, on the ABC News?”
“Yeah, that’s him. This is going to happen Friday or Saturday, while the rest of the world — including your ex and your pal from Yale — is just waiting for the word to stick their heads between their legs and kiss their asses goodbye.”
She heartened me by giggling.
“This Russian will more or less say. .” Here I did a pretty good Russian accent. I had learned it listening to Lee’s wife. Also from Boris and Natasha on Rocky and Bullwinkle. “‘Get vurd to your president that ve vunt vay to back out of this vith honor. You agree take your nuclear missiles out of Turkey. You promise never to invade Kooba. Ve say okay and dismantle missiles in Kooba.’ And that, Sadie, is exactly what’s going to happen.”
She wasn’t giggling now. She was staring at me with huge saucer eyes. “You’re making this up to make me feel better.”
I said nothing.
“You’re not, ” she whispered. “You really believe it.”
“Wrong,” I said. “I know it. Big difference.”
“George. . nobody knows the future.”
“John Clayton claims to know, and you believe him. Roger from Yale claims to know, and you believe him, too.”
“You’re jealous of him, aren’t you?”
“You’re goddam right.”
“I never slept with him. I never even wanted to.” Solemnly, she added: “I could never sleep with a man who wears that much cologne.”
“Good to know. I’m still jealous.”
“Should I ask questions about how you—”
“No. I won’t answer them.” I probably shouldn’t have told her as much as I had, but I couldn’t stop myself. And in truth, I would do it again. “But I will tell you one other thing, and this you can check yourself in a couple of days. Adlai Stevenson and the Russian representative to the UN are going to face off in the General Assembly. Stevenson’s going to exhibit huge photos of the missile bases the Russians are building in Cuba, and ask the Russian guy to explain what the Russians said wasn’t there. The Russian guy is going to say something like, ‘You must vait, I cannot respond viddout full translation.’ And Stevenson, who knows the guy can speak perfect English, is going to say something that’ll wind up in the history books along with ‘don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.’ He’s going to tell the Russian guy he can wait until hell freezes over.”
She looked at me doubtfully, turned to the night table, saw the charred pack of Winstons sitting on top of a hill of crushed butts, and said: “I think I’m out of cigarettes.”
“You should be okay until morning,” I said dryly. “It looks to me like you front-loaded about a week’s supply.”
“George?” Her voice was very small, very timid. “Will you stay with me tonight?”
“My car’s parked in your—”
“If one of the neighborhood neb-noses says something, I’ll tell them you came to see me after the president’s speech and it wouldn’t start.”
Considering how the Sunliner was running these days, that was plausible. “Does your sudden concern for propriety mean you’ve stopped worrying about nuclear Armageddon?”
“I don’t know. I only know I don’t want to be alone. I’ll even make love with you if that will get you to stay, but I don’t think it would be much good for either of us. My head aches so badly. ”
“You don’t have to make love to me, hon. It’s not a business deal.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“Hush. I’ll get the aspirin.”
“And look on top of the medicine cabinet, would you? Sometimes I leave a pack of cigarettes there.”
She had, but by the time she’d taken three puffs of the one I lit for her, she was wall-eyed and dozing. I took it from between her fingers and mashed it out on the lower slope of Mount Cancer. Then I took her in my arms and laid back on the pillows. We fell asleep that way.
When I woke to the first long light of dawn, the fly of my slacks was unzipped and a skillful hand was exploring inside my underwear. I turned to her. She was looking at me calmly. “The world is still here, George. And so are we. Come on. But be gentle. My head still aches.”
I was gentle, and I made it last. We made it last. At the end, she lifted her hips and dug into my shoulder blades. It was her oh dear, oh my God, oh sugar grip.
“Anything.” She was whispering, her breath in my ear making me shiver as I came. “You can be anything, do anything, just say you’ll stay. And that you still love me.”
“Sadie. . I never stopped.”
We had breakfast in her kitchen before I went back to Dallas. I told her it really was Dallas now, and although I didn’t have a phone yet, I would give her the number as soon as I had one.
She nodded and picked at her eggs. “I meant what I said. I won’t ask any more questions about your business.”
“That’s best. Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“Just tell me again that you’re up to good rather than no good.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m one of the good guys.”
“Will you be able to tell me someday?”
“I hope so,” I said. “Sadie, those pictures he sent—”
“I tore them up this morning. I don’t want to talk about them.”
“We don’t have to. But I need you to tell me that’s all the contact you’ve had with him. That he hasn’t been around.”
“He hasn’t been. And the postmark on the envelope was Savannah.”
I’d noticed that. But I’d also noticed the postmark was almost two months old.
“He’s not big on personal confrontation. He’s brave enough in his mind, but I think he’s a physical coward.”
That struck me as a good assessment; sending the pictures was textbook passive-aggressive behavior. Still, she had been sure Clayton wouldn’t find out where she was now living and teaching, and she’d been wrong about that. “The behavior of mentally unstable people is hard to predict, honey. If you saw him, you’d call the police, right?”
“Yes, George.” With a touch of her old impatience. “I need to ask you one question, then we won’t talk about this anymore until you’re ready. If you ever are.”
“Okay.” I tried to prepare an answer to the question I was sure would be coming: Are you from the future, George?
“It’s going to sound crazy.”
“It’s been a crazy night. Go ahead.”
“Are you. .” She laughed, then started to gather the plates. She went to the sink with them, and with her back turned, she asked: “Are you human? Like, from planet Earth?”
I went to her, reached around to cup her breasts, and kissed the back of her neck. “Totally human.”
She turned. Her eyes were grave. “Can I ask another?”
I sighed. “Shoot.”
“I’ve got at least forty minutes before I have to dress for school. Do you happen to have another condom? I think I’ve discovered the cure for headaches.”